Integrating Continuous Improvement Into Your Business
The concept of continuous improvement or lean operations has been practiced in manufacturing and business for more than a decade now. CI is a systematic method for identifying opportunities to streamline work, reduce waste and maintain sustainable production. The practice started in Japanese manufacturing firms and became a formalized approach known as Lean, Agile, Kaizen or Kanban in manufacturing and business.
Today, many companies implement those ideologies, often combining them, to capitalize on savings opportunities. Some companies, however, choose to be flexible and diverge from those to practice other, less formal approaches when beneficial. Teams that prefer to provide the space and time necessary for creativity or innovation, for example, may apply an ideology more loosely so they can identify new approaches to be forerunners in their market.
In all of the methodologies that have been developed, continuous improvement is the core objective, with additional focus on maintaining exceptional customer service standards and reducing waste in costs, time and labor, and defects that result in a need for reworking.
The Continuous Improvement Cycle typically includes at least these four basic action steps:
- IDENTIFY: Find opportunities in the process workflow.
- PLAN: How can the current process be improved?
- EXECUTE: Implement changes.
- REVIEW: How are changes working for the team?
Getting Started on a CI Plan
Depending on your manufacturing operations, implementing continuous improvement starts with identifying a current process, procedure, workflow or project. Next, a comprehensive evaluation and analysis of that process marks the initial improvement step. Although that sounds somewhat obvious, many companies ignore this evaluation and end up realizing that the process in question isn't needed. They may also find that it's so ineffectively integrated within the company that they must step back and analyze the entire workflow.
Here are some important questions to ask when considering an area for improvement:
- How many people are involved in this specific process?
- How much time do they spend working to perform that process?
- What would be gained if time were allotted to improve this process? (These gains should be in dollars, time or other quantifiable value metrics.)
- What and how would other teams/processes be affected by changes to the current process? Would those impacts represent impediments? Will the value of launching a new process be justified?
Before deciding what initiative to devote time and effort to, companies may take a vote on which process or workflow they feel would most benefit from improvement. Once an initiative is chosen, the team should discuss next steps.
Moreover, it's important to ensure that your company's culture does not hamper or disrupt improvement. The following five suggestions should encourage more engagement from your entire workforce, support ownership of problems and drive improvement:
- Eliminate fear of suggesting improvements.
- Aim for step-by-step improvements.
- Give the employee faced with a problem the autonomy to solve it.
- Study the process, and collect and analyze the data.
- View all processes horizontally (foster interaction between departments).
By taking these steps, you'll position your company to keep the improvements flowing!